The Environment beckons, but…

By Jenny Ford

At a young age Melissa Creede became an expert in her field. When she joined Delphi Group in 1997, an environmental consulting firm, she encountered the emerging discussions about climate change and was hooked. The issue was like a well-plotted novel; there were characters, money, politics, technology and an international appeal.

“I felt connected with the globe, the physical part of the globe and  the people and culture of the globe, as well,” says Melissa, now 42.

Green jobs are constantly shifting, with new policies, new concerns and new methods of curving our environmental footprint. Whether it’s working on conservation, policy or sustainability, the green economy is growing and changing, says Kevin Nilson, director of professional services at ECO Canada, an organization that works to support environmental jobs in Canada.

ECO Canada estimates there will be 100,000 environmental job vacancies over the next decade due to retirement. “The environmental sector is growing at a very rapid rate,” says Kevin. “It’s growing on average faster than the Canadian economy.”

Green jobs encompass many industries. For environmental professionals, it can fall into the sectors of sustainability, protection, and conservation and preservation of natural resources. Within these areas are many different types of jobs, from consultants to scientists. It’s a broad employment range with lots of opportunities.

However, Kevin is concerned some people don’t understand what it means to work in the green sector. While the number of students entering environmental studies programs is on the rise, the number of graduates is declining. This is because many new students are confused about what  it means to be an environmental professional, says Kevin.

“There’s not the awareness that if you want to work in the environmental sector, you need to have some scientific and engineering technical skills,” he says. “You can still make a difference, you can still change the world, but you have to do the work that’s required and that’s really science based.”

Science and engineering are a big part of green jobs, but Kevin says there’s also a growing need for people with soft skills, meaning knowing how to communicate with stakeholders and get the environmental messages across. “As the general population takes more of an interest in the environment, they have more questions,” he says. “There’s much more of a demand for some people to articulate and communicate what’s going on.” However, on top of these skills, a background in science or engineering is still important, he says.

There are countless universities across the country offering environmental studies, sciences and engineering programs. Salaries start in the mid $40,000 range and average about $75,000 for engineers and scientists and $55,000 for technologists. While Kevin says post-graduate work is not necessary to find a job, he maintains it’s important to pick an undergraduate program that isn’t too general in its sweep of environmental subject matter.

Melissa received her undergrad in engineering at the University of Ottawa, but jokes that during her career, “I did everything but the science.” Her strengths lay in communication and policy, meeting with stakeholders and corporations to explain the advantages of moving toward environmentally sustainable options. “I needed to go to places where there was hope and possibility. When I look back at my career, all of those areas where I spent time were areas where I felt I could achieve change.”

One such place was Argentina, where Melissa spent from 2001 to 2004 through Delphi Group bringing sustainability knowledge to rural communities. This included installing solar panels on schools. “There was a lot of belief that if we could help developing countries to leapfrog what we were doing, we could make a big impact. We were setting them up for a cleaner future without having to backtrack,” she says. Melissa now runs her own consulting company called Sapis.
Many of the jobs right now are in the areas of environmental health and safety and waste management, says Kevin. A person in waste management would, for instance, monitor the waste and air emissions from landfills. They might also develop various ways of capturing the gas and using it for energy. They could also set up recycling facilities and create programs to deal with waste in an environmental way.

One challenge of the job is that the work year is very cyclical, meaning people have to be adaptable, says Kevin. There can be a lot of work outside in the summer followed by report writing in the fall and winter.

Certifications bestowed at the completions of select courses of  study make it possible to distinguish experts in the field. This is very important, says Kevin, as the industry has been flooded with so-called experts. “Green-washers and people wanting to take advantage of the hype are everywhere,” he says.  ECO Canada offers an Environmental Professionals certification, which can be obtained right after university to help give credibility when looking for work.

LEED Canada offers another professional accreditation in the area of designing green buildings. Professionals in such careers as architecture and engineering can obtain this accreditation, and workers in a variety of industries can also now obtain this knowledge in a new tiered level of designations and educational content. “Getting these accreditations shows they understand the principles of green building and design,” says Crystal Finnigan, higher education programs administrator at the Canada Green Building Council. Employers, she says, “are looking for people that have that experience.”

These accreditations vary and are designed to give working professionals in any field more knowledge and confidence in green building. Recent post-secondary graduates can become a “green associate”, showing that they know the principles of what makes a green building. Later on, they can acquire a more specialized accreditation in such areas as “building, design and construction” or “operations and maintenance of existing buildings”.

Participants can attain the eligibility required for the green associate accreditation through experience or by taking a study course. They then write a knowledge-testing exam. The Canada Green Building Council is offering exam preparation courses and other courses meeting the exam’s eligibility requirements, at 18 post-secondary institutions across the country.

Kevin says internships are important for persons wanting to break into green jobs, since positions require experts and a company isn’t necessarily willing to hire people with zero experience. ECO Canada offers a variety of internship programs, including one where they will give a company up to $12,000 toward  your first-year salary after your internship.

To Melissa, the important thing is to stick to your principles and go where you feel you’re making a difference. “The more self-aware people are the more they’re able to follow their values and be in a state where they’re happy and productive.”

Installing solar panels in on schools in Argentina

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